At 9:28 p.m. the night before President Donald Trump signed an executive order to slash Bears Ears National Monument by 85%, Matt Anderson, a policy analyst at Utah’s conservative Sutherland Institute think tank, sent an email to then-San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally.
Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation, was set to speak at Trump’s proclamation signing ceremony and was one of the few Democrats in the country willing to praise what, along with a 50% cut to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, would soon be dubbed the “largest rollback of public land protections in American history.”
“I made those small changes we talked about,” Anderson said. “All the changes I made are highlighted in yellow.”
One of his proposed additions was a bit of praise for his employer. “Thank you, Sutherland Institute,” Anderson wrote for Benally’s speech. “You gave us confidence to raise our voices then amplified that voice to the nation.”
The email was included in a massive trove of communications released by the Interior Department after a public records request, and it offers an example of the type of influence the Sutherland Institute exerted over the course of its sustained public relations campaign against Bears Ears National Monument.
“The designation of the Bears Ears National Monument sets a dangerous precedent of allowing special interest groups to unduly influence the monument designation process,” read the resolution, which was sponsored by then-House Speaker Greg Hughes and then-Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, both Republicans. Its language echoed a talking point used repeatedly by Sutherland as a coalition of five American Indian tribes with ancestral ties to Bears Ears and a number of regional and national environmental groups were spending millions on a pro-monument campaign.
Sutherland’s active role in lobbying against the monument prompted a wave of scrutiny at the time. The think tank, itself a special interest group, has ties to a network of organizations linked to the billionaire brothers Charles Koch and David H. Koch, including the Donors Trust and the State Policy Network, both of which have received millions in Koch money and both of which have donated to the Sutherland Institute.
Sutherland has insisted its Bears Ears campaign was primarily funded by in-state sources. A spokesperson told the Pacific Standard magazine in 2017 that Sutherland had “not received any out-of-state funds for research or communications related to the Bears Ears issue,” adding, “the vast majority of Sutherland funding comes from Utah foundations and residents.” While monument opponents decried the large amounts of money pouring in to defend the monument designation, Sutherland’s main funding sources went largely unreported.
“God, family, country”
Swim was described as the Sutherland Institute’s “primary benefactor” in a 2004 Deseret News article on the think tank, and the tax documents indicate a cozy relationship has continued among the Sutherland Institute, Swim’s relatives and two foundations with ties to the Swim family.
When Swim died in 2005, the board of GFC Foundation, which stands for “God, family and country,” was run largely by family members, including his wife and their then-31-year-old son, Stanford Swim, who became its president in 2006 and was receiving a salary of more than $150,000 by the time he left the position in 2018.
“GFC and Sutherland were founded by the same person,” Kelsey Witt, a spokesperson for the think tank, confirmed in an email. “Naturally, GFC (a private family foundation) has provided varying degrees of support to Sutherland, a public 501(c)(3). GFC has also been a primary supporter during times of growth and transition.”
Most of the younger Swim’s tenure as Sutherland Institute board chairman, from 2013 to 2019, overlapped with his presidency at GFC, the source of most of Sutherland’s funding. And after Paul Mero resigned his roles as the president of Sutherland and as a paid board member of GFC in 2014, Stanford Swim served as interim president of the think tank for a year and a half during its initial anti-monument campaign.
“While he was interim president (August 2014-March 2016), he provided general management,” the Sutherland spokesperson said. “As board chair for Sutherland Institute, he (along with all other board chairs) abstained from any policy oversight.
“GFC supports general operations,” Witt added, “and not specific policy issues.”
In fiscal 2015 and 2016, the GFC Foundation donated a total of $4 million to Sutherland, accounting for more than 70% of the think tank’s total revenue.
From 2012 to 2017, for example, GFC gave $1.4 million to Donors Trust, while Donors Trust granted Sutherland a total of $1.3 million during that same time period.
Foundation for the American West, which was also established by Gaylord Swim, received $1.34 million from the GFC Foundation from 2010 to 2016. Over that same period, the Foundation for the American West granted a nearly identical amount of $1.36 million to the Sutherland Institute.
(Sutherland did not receive a donation from Foundation for the American West in 2017, and the spokesperson said the two organizations do not “have a current relationship.”)
In the lead-up to Obama’s designation of Bears Ears National Monument, nearly 83% of the Sutherland Institute’s annual revenue came from the GFC Foundation, the Foundation for the American West and Donors Trust.
Stanford Swim — who left his position at the GFC Foundation in 2018 and his role at Sutherland last year, according to his LinkedIn page — served for over a decade on the board of the Koch-linked State Policy Network, which funds conservative think tanks like Sutherland that lobby state policymakers.
The Sutherland Institute has been the primary beneficiary of the GFC Foundation’s donations through the years, but the foundation also has funded a number of anti-gay rights organizations like the Marriage Law Foundation, whose director, William C. Duncan, now runs the Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society.
“The Sutherland Institute has taken Utah taxpayers on a wild ride to amplify their extremist and blatantly unconstitutional anti-public lands agenda,” said Jayson O’Neill, deputy director of Western Values Project, a Montana-based advocacy group. “When it comes to valuing and protecting America’s and Utah’s public lands, they’re uniquely pro-industry, pro-special interest, and anti-public lands…. They’re looking to take a public resource and shift it into private hands for their benefit.”
Matt Anderson left Sutherland in 2018 and currently works for Republican Sen. Mitt Romney as his northern Utah director.
Since the most recent tax information for the GFC Foundation or the Sutherland Institute is for 2017, it’s unclear whether Stanford Swim’s departure from both organizations has affected their funding relationship. Swim did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Almost all of the op-eds written by Sutherland Institute employees from 2015 to 2017 mentioned “local opposition” as one of the major reasons for reducing the size of the monument, but in the absence of reliable opinion polls in San Juan County, public sentiment there has always been difficult to gauge.
Environmental groups sided with indigenous-run organizations like the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — a major proponent of the monument designation made up of elected representatives from the Diné, Zuni, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Indian tribes — and Utah Diné Bikéyah to cite local and regional support.
Utah Diné Bikéyah and others have presented some evidence to the contrary, arguing that in fact most Native Americans in San Juan County favored the monument. And since Trump’s rescission, a voting rights lawsuit brought against San Juan County by the Navajo Nation led to the redrawing of the county’s commission districts to favor Native Americans, who account for the majority of the county population. Benally lost the Democratic primary to pro-monument activist Kenneth Maryboy who, along with former Utah Diné Bikéyah board chairman Willie Grayeyes, won the 2018 special election and became members of San Juan’s first majority-Native American County Commission.